Chcete Mluvit Česky? Do You Want To Speak Czech? Or Another Language?

If you assume that learning to speak Czech is difficult- you would be right. I have been working at it for two years now and am finally getting the hang of it. In the introduction to one of my Czech textbooks, the author marvels at how the Czech people have managed to keep their language alive and well during so many occupations of their homeland. He comes to the conclusion that it is due to their “Secret National Defense System,”

….. their language! 

“I imagine that Czech was so difficult for the foreign invaders that they were unable to interact in a meaningful way with the Czechs”… and so they… “eventually tired of not being able to communicate much of anything, to anyone, they left, leaving the culture unaffected.”  (401 Czech Verbs  by Bruce Davies and Jana Hejduková)

The most difficult part of the language is its system of 7 different Cases in which nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and most numerals change their endings according to the Case used. The Cases define the relationship between words in a sentence, ie. who or what is the subject, direct object, or indirect object, etc. (Word order is not necessarily important in Czech but is crucial in English) For instance, here are some spelling changes for the word: doma which means home: “at home” is doma, “go home” jdi domů, “leave home” opustit domov, and “in the home” v domě.

On the flip side, Czech is a phonetic language, which makes it easy to pronounce and spell- unlike English with all its silent letters like: “k” in knee, “b” in climb, “h” in hour, “w” in answer, and “gh” in thought. But more about the history and structure of English in another Post…


Did You Know That Queen Elizabeth I Spoke 9 Languages Fluently?

“She possessed nine languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue; five of these were the languages of peoples governed by her, English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, for that part of her possessions where they are still savage, and Irish. All of them are so different, that it is impossible for those who speak the one to understand any of the others. Besides this, she spoke perfectly Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian extremely well.”

Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, Venetian Ambassador 1603


People often speculate as to which language is the most difficult to learn, usually assuming it’s the one that they speak. But difficulty is all relative. Relative to how similar the language is to your own (grammatically and phonetically), how well you learn in general, and of course, how motivated you are to learn it, among other things. 

That being said, I checked out the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) ranking of world languages based upon their level of difficulty for native English speakers. The FSI provides training for U.S. foreign diplomats, so I figured they would know. They have divided languages into 4 categories with Cat 1 being easiest and Cat 4 labelled as “exceptionally” difficult. No surprise that Spanish and French fall into Cat 1 and that Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are Cat 4. The bulk of the languages fall under Cat 3, which is where you will find Czech. (I won’t argue)

Of course, I am highly motivated to learn Czech as I plan to live and work in the country. But why should you learn to speak another language if you don’t plan to leave the U.S? Why should you be a polyglot (like Queen Elizabeth) and not a monoglot? Based upon my own experience, and with the help of Dr. Neel Burton, author of “ Beyond Words: The Benefits of Being Bilingual” (article appears in “Psychology Today” online July 2018), I would sum it up this way….

  1. It enriches your life. As Dr. Burton points out, multilingualism is closely linked to multiculturalism. As we investigate and learn another language we naturally come to know and appreciate that culture. Your understanding, empathy, and compassion will expand.
  2. It connects you to the world which is increasingly interconnected through the Internet and other technologies. Now more than ever before we travel, trade, and work with people and businesses around the world.
  3. It’s good for your brain health. Learning a foreign language is a great brain exercise that increases gray matter. It works the part of your brain that handles executive functions like analysis, problem solving, working memory, multi-tasking and attention control.

But, I suppose, there is a fourth, and very simple reason to learn a foreign language- it’s fun! How cool is it to be able to talk with another person in a second language? In my next post I will talk about tips for language study that have helped me.


Dear Readers, do you speak a foreign language? What has been your experience with learning another language? I’d love to hear about your language journey.

Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’

“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’
Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’
Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’
For This Old World Is Almost Gone”

Traditional- Attributed to, and Recorded by: Blind Willie Johnson (1928), Reverend Gary Davis (1956), and Mississippi Fred McDowell (1959) Like all Traditional songs, the lyrics vary between performers and in written versions

Lately I find myself singing this old gospel/blues tune a lot. It is based on a parable from the book of Matthew (25: 1-13) often called “The Parable of the Ten Virgins.” 

The Parable of the Ten Virgins (section) by Phoebe Traquair, Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh.

The story goes that there were 10 bridesmaids awaiting the coming of a groom to escort them to a marriage feast. After being delayed, the groom finally arrives at midnight to collect them. (They are all sleeping due to the late hour) Five of the women have their oil lamps well supplied with oil ( and wicks trimmed!) and are ready to go with him. But the other five have to go out to the store to purchase oil for their lamps and so aren’t ready to go when the groom appears. As their “punishment” they are shut out of the wedding feast.

The Wise and Foolish VirginsWilliam Blake, 1826 Tate Gallery

The parable is an admonition to “be ready” of course. It was a wildly popular religious theme during the Middle Ages as evidenced by its influence in Gothic art. Paintings and sculptures of the Ten Virgins decorate numerous churches and cathedrals all across Europe including Notre Dame in Paris and Reimes.

“Brother Don’t you Get Worried
Brother Don’t You Get Worried
Brother Don’t You Get Worried
For This Old World Is Almost Gone”

In my last blog post I wrote about adapting to the darkness when we can’t see the Light at the End of the Tunnel– specifically my personal journey of trying to get to Prague to teach. So, while waiting for the “all clear” to travel freely again, I’ve been asking myself, how can I keep my lamp trimmed and burnin’? What can I do to be ready? The only thing worse than being grounded by the global Pandemic, would be to not have used this down time wisely to prepare in every way possible for my trip.

“Sister, Don’t You Stop Prayin’
Sister, Don’t You Stop Prayin’
Sister, Don’t You Stop Prayin’
For This Old world Is Almost Gone”

Friedrich Wilhelm SchadowThe Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1838–1842 (detail), Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main.

The most practical thing I’ve been doing is to continue learning the Czech language so that when I finally do arrive in Prague, I won’t be a total beginner. I’m also sorting through my best teaching materials and digitizing them (since I can’t travel with reams of paper), as well as creating new lessons from ideas I’ve had for a long time but have never had free time to develop. As any teacher knows, putting all this together is extremely time consuming and virtually impossible to do when you are actually teaching!

But let me be quick to add that while these activities are my ideal, I often fall short. My self-expectations turn into merely good intentions and I feel a lot like the woman in the picture above…….too tired to care where I last left my lamp.

Dear Readers, what have you been busy doing? How have you, and how are you keeping your lamp trimmed and burnin’? I’d love to hear from you.

I leave you with a recent recording of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin” performed by Piedmont Blues guitar virtuoso, and my good friend, Mr. Jon Shain. Accompanying Jon on bass is another stellar musician, and equally good friend, Mr. FJ Ventre. Enjoy!

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

“Due to recent Government cutbacks, The Light At The End Of The Tunnel has been turned off.”

I laughed out loud the first time I read this clever quip painted on a small plaque in a Hallmark store. But in today’s Pandemic environment, these words have the sting of truth about them and they’re not so funny. When every daily event, and all future plans must be filtered through the reality of the Coronavirus, with no end in sight, it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. 

As most of you know, for the last two years I have been working to bring a dream to fruition— to move to Prague and teach English. What you don’t know is how close I came to realizing my dream before the Pandemic struck. Last November I went to Prague for two weeks, had two job interviews, and got two job offers. My plan was to move there in June of 2020. Now I’m in indefinite limbo with no idea as to when the light will reappear at the end of that tunnel.

There are only two real responses to finding yourself in a darkened tunnel. You can scream and curse the darkness, ( all the while eating too much and “doom scrolling” online until you create for yourself an inert depression.) Or, you can stumble your way forward into the darkness with no assurances about what lies ahead.

Literally speaking, the human eye requires very little light to see in the darkness, even the dimmest of starlight will do. When confronted with darkness, our eyes automatically adjust. The pupils expand to let in more light and a transition occurs in our light sensing cells from the use of cones, which see color and detail, to rods that give us our night vision. The whole process only takes about 20 minutes to be at full capacity.

Now, if only the darkness of mind and spirit adapted as quickly or as easily! If you are like me, you may find yourself alternating between determination and despair. Most days I’m hopeful and productive, but some days I am too despondent to even try to accomplish anything. While contemplating my (our) current dilemma, I remembered this poem by Emily Dickinson that perfectly articulates our struggle to adapt to this new reality that we find ourselves in.

We grow accustomed to the dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darknesses—
The Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

I try not to be too hard on myself during these uncertain times, and I suggest you do the same. Eventually, either the darkness will alter or our sight will adjust itself. Of course, things won’t be the same post Pandemic, but we will all find our equilibrium again, and Life will step “almost straight.”

Dear Readers, have you found yourself in a darkened tunnel of late wondering when the light will be turned on again? If so, I’d love to hear how you’ve been coping.

You Are Worth More Than Your Wage

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The writer has made an attempt to draw the hammer and sickle, the symbol of solidarity between the peasant farmers and the industrial working-class- first adopted during the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Every day as I tromp up the stairs of the parking garage returning to my car after teaching, my foot falls on this message written on one of the step landings. I often wonder about the stranger who wrote it and why? Was he or she in need of an encouraging word at the end of every day in order to come back to work the next? A reminder that their paycheck wasn’t the whole story?

After recently receiving my first pay check from my new teaching job, this message has been on my mind a lot. As most of you know, I am in the midst of pursuing a new career in teaching ESL.  In case any of my readers are considering the same, I should make it abundantly clear that ESL is not a lucrative career. It is difficult to find anything more than part-time work here in the U.S. I teach a four hour class five days a week. I spend long hours of preparation for which I am not compensated. Class attendance is sporadic and within the same class I must adjust to students who are at multi-levels of English ability.

But still, the work is rewarding! Most of my students are appreciative and motivated, thanking me at the end of every class. Watching them with heads bent tackling a worksheet, I feel so proud of the effort they are making. It is the combination of our efforts that creates the payoff. The school doesn’t half compensate me for what I’m worth, so I have to seek the intangible wage. And I’m grateful to the mysterious encourager who scribbled these words on the step knowing that someone else needed a reminder of their true value at the end of every day as well. 

 

A ZigZag Line

“The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks”
                                                                        Ralph Waldo Emerson

kristel-hayes--BcnpZHZJx4-unsplashUnlike a motor boat, a sailboat cannot proceed directly into the wind. If that is its desired course, a sailing vessel must use the wind, allowing it to blow the ship from side to side, a maneuver called tacking. Thus progress forward is achieved by patiently and intentionally navigating a zigzag line.

Our life’s journey is so often portrayed as a ship’s voyage. I don’t know about you, but mine has, more often than not, resembled a sailboat heading into the wind. Not long ago I wrote about how I have learned to reconcile and embrace the meandering route of my career path. I concluded that in hindsight, it was actually perfect for my new career of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). bobby-burch-7ghPaPLdmTY-unsplash

As many of you know, my goal is to teach ESL in Prague, Czech Republic. My journey toward that end began by volunteer teaching and getting my TEFL certification last year. Now I’m tacking. I was offered a job teaching ESL at the Community College, and I started three weeks ago. I’ve signed a contract through December and fully expect to renew it in January for the spring term.

What may seem like a detour or delay is in reality an intentional tactical maneuver that I believe will propel me forward toward my intended destination. The experience and knowledge I’m gaining in my new teaching position will open doors to better job opportunities when I do make it to Prague. As much as I want to charge ahead, I know I will arrive at just the right time if I stay this course of the zigzag line.

Dear Readers: what has your life’s voyage been like? A motorboat, or a sailboat heading into the wind? Do tell.

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Remembering Jan Palach

jan_palach_foto_z_průkazu50 years ago today, on January 16, 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old university student in Prague, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square. His suicide by self-immolation was not only a protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous summer, but more immediately at the time, it was a cry to awaken the Czech people from their apathy, post invasion. (The Soviet invasion of 1/2 million troops in 1968 was to squelch the “Prague Spring,” a movement that had been growing to secure some freedoms of speech, travel and the media.) Palach believed that the people had become complacent with the occupation and no longer had the will to resist.

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Site in Wenceslas Square that is a memorial

Although Palac was hailed as a hero (some 200,000 people attended his funeral), and his death sparked further protests, the occupation was quite effective at silencing the people. But he was not forgotten, nor was his death in vain. 20 years later, on January 15, 1989, a new protest movement brought demonstrators to Wenceslas Square to commemorate Palach’s sacrifice to the cause of freedom. They came every day for a week, which later became known as “Palach Week.”

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Palach’s funeral march: photo courtesy of Praha T.V. archive

 

If you know your history, you will recall that by the end of that same year, in November 1989, all of the resistance energy that had been building across the country, culminated in a massive occupation of Wenceslas Square, this time by the Czech people themselves. Their Velvet Revolution brought down a Soviet controlled government and ushered in their first democratically elected post-war president.

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Photo courtesy of Prague Daily Monitor

I wish I had been there. I can only imagine the electric thrill of people realizing their freedom for the first time. Oh, if only Jan Palach could have been there to see it!  His sacrifice to sting the conscience of his people, reminded me that our freedoms are not a guarantee. We must be vigilant to protect them. They can be taken away, and they can disappear in the most insidious way possible, chipped away at little by little while we are “asleep.” Usurping of our freedoms cannot be checked or changed if we are apathetic.

Honestly, I cannot begin to imagine doing what Jan Palach did for the sake of my beliefs but history has proven that his actions were instrumental to a greater good than his own. Today all across the Czech Republic he is being honored and remembered through exhibitions, programs and ceremonies and by a candlelight march at 6:00 p.m. from Wenceslas Square to Old Town Square. As Americans who say we value our freedom, we would be good to pause and remember him too.

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Palach’s memorial Wenceslas Square: photo courtesy Praha T.V.

Winter Gets Down to Business

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In January, winter really gets down to business. Just ask any of us here on the east coast, from Florida to Maine, who endured last week’s vicious attack of ice, snow and obscenely cold temperatures. We are just now emerging from our dens with a shaky confidence that life above ground will go on.

Listening to NPR, I learned that we were the victims of a Bombogenesis, an apocalyptic- sounding, meteorological term for when the barometric pressure drops steeply in a short period of time and so creates a “bomb cyclone.” Indeed it felt like a bomb, disrupting life wherever it hit.

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Photo by Nathan Wolfe on Unsplash

Now, everyone experiences a bombogenesis in her or his own way. As for me, icy roads are my kryptonite. I feel a sudden onset of paralysis and can’t leave home. Apparently, so too, do most Southerners. At the mere threat of inclement weather schools close before the first snowflake falls, sometimes as early as a day before. This same rationale grounded garbage trucks from their rounds last week, prohibited the mail from delivery, and left many businesses shuttered early.

To non southerners this behavior may seem paranoid, ridiculous and downright silly but I think it’s actually pretty ingenious. Southerners just know how to nuance a snowstorm better than anyone else. We have an unspoken but tacit agreement amongst ourselves that it’s okay to cancel all sorts of activities using the weather as an excuse to play hooky, and not just from school. There is a collective sigh of relief when the team practice, the

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Photo by Alex on Unsplash

book club, and the church committee meeting are all suspended until further notice too.

Because modern life is a sea of constant activity, we adults long for a chance to stop and rest. An opportunity to come in from the cold, to acknowledge and respond to our primitive instinct to hibernate in winter. Forecasts of snow and ice provide an excuse to stay home, to withdraw from the outside world and to draw near to the warmth of our own hearth. Witness the people all rushing to the grocery store to buy not only the obligatory bread and milk, but the hot chocolate, the wine, the popcorn. We are all planning and hoping to be captives in our respective dens and we want the larder well stocked.

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Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

And, if only for a few brief days, we want to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from a good excuse to cancel school and other obligations and just stay home and sit by the fire.

 

ILLUMINATION

It is the season of illumination. Photo by Lena Orwig on UnsplashIn every town, large and small, on land and on sea, on foot or by car, through historic houses, gardens and even battlefields, you can experience a candlelight or electric light tour sure to get you in the Christmas Spirit. If the tour is by purchased ticket, they sell out weeks in advance. If it is open to the public, like our town’s Holiday Flotilla along the inland waterway, you must set out hours in advance in order to navigate traffic, parking and jostling crowds to claim a vantage point. As one advertisement for the Flotilla read, “80,000 people can’t be wrong!”

What feeling, or emotion is everyone seeking to experience through these hugely popular events? I believe the answer lies back in time and in our communal humanity. Photo by Davidson Luna on UnsplashThe appeal of light in darkness is as great with modern Peoples as it was with our Neolithic ancestors who celebrated the Winter Solstice. With the onset of winter, with it’s shorter days and longer nights, we are drawn to the light.

Ancient Peoples may not have understood the science behind the Solstice but they understood that all life depended upon the light of the sun. Taking nothing for granted and assuming nothing as certain, they paid homage to the sun and beseeched its return with rituals and celebrations. Naturally, those rituals revolved around the light of the fire rlm4wq96h_0-chuttersnapwhich symbolized the sun and its life-giving energy. Eventually, Christianity superimposed their Christmas celebrations onto those familiar ones of the Winter Solstice incorporating many pagan rituals of illumination which we still recognize today.

In essence, nothing has really changed except for the multitudinous number of ways we humans can now create light. But the appeal and the sense of well-being light brings us, as we draw near to it, contemplate it, or surround ourselves with it, remains the same. As Moderns we may understand the astrological science behind the Solstice and we may not fear a never-ending winter, but we still feel winter’s cold, especially in a hostile and angry world such as the one in which we now live. Now more than ever we need the warmth and good cheer of colored lights, candles gleaming, and a roaring fire on many a dark night.candle-light

Dear Readers, the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st for us here in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day be sure to raise your glass and say a word of good cheer for the return of the sun!

Are You Missing Out?

The psychology of “The Fear of Missing Out,” is not new, but it may be reaching epidemic proportions thanks to modern technology. “FOMO,” (its acronym), is the belief that somewhere else, a rewarding experience is being had by others but not by you, and thus, you fear that your own life may be lacking in some way, a fear that must be as old as the human race itself. We are by nature curious creatures and our human brains posses the ability to imagine how things could be different. Both a blessing and a curse.

Capitalizing upon this aspect of human nature has fueled the rise of Social Media. Its creators openly acknowledge that their products have been designed to exploit FOMO  and therefore, they seed the rankle and discontent of always imagining a different and better scenario than the one we are living at that very moment.

Awareness of the many dark sides of the Social Media Medusa, including psychological dependence upon it, (a byproduct of FOMO) has been steadily growing and even sparking a backlash. Countless articles and books by psychologists, behavioral scientists, economists and professors of every stripe are sounding the alarm, if only to alert you to the fact that you are ultimately not the consumer but the product itself.

In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote about the FOMO he witnessed in his own century saying,

“Hardly a man takes a half hour nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘what’s the news?’ After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast, ‘pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe.”

Fast forward to 2017 and I can only imagine his amazement and dismay to see modern peoples’ obsession with a certain small handheld device. But possessing a keen understanding of human nature, Thoreau would quickly “get” the allure of incessant news feeds, status updates, live streaming, and the billions of “tweets and likes.”

His response today, I believe, would be the same he gave his readers in his lifetime.

“What news! how much more important to know what that is which was never old! When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

From his writing I glean: Seek out those things that are foundational, that never lose their value, that are ever fresh and relevant each time you encounter them. Look past the shams and delusions, the superficiality of what popular culture says is valuable. Discover, read, and study the classics in philosophy and literature. Stop looking down. Instead, look up and around and place yourself under Nature’s tutelage. Develop friendships that you maintain with the investment of your physical presence.

I know FOMO is real because I have felt its nagging prick. As a single person, without the benefit of a ready-made travel companion, I have felt it most often reading about the travels and adventures of all my coupled friends. But I shake off FOMO knowing that the life I’m living isn’t inferior, it’s just different, and it’s a great life. I am pursuing my dream of a life of Deep Work that rewards with a deep sense of well-being as I wrote about in my last post. And I’m trying to live as Thoreau suggests, consciously and with intent.

Dear Readers, when have you experienced FOMO in your own life and how have you processed through it?